Marianne Moore: Poetry

March 28, 2010

Tolstoy’s Diary and “Poetry”

Filed under: Marianne Moore,Poem Sources — by moore123 @ 4:31 pm
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Leo Tolstoy, 1851 (P. 76)

“Business documents and school books” famously quoted in “Poetry,” from The Diaries of Leo Tolstoy, translated by C. J. Hogarth (New York: Dutton, 1917) appear in Moore’s 1916-1921 reading notebook. She noted the following passages from the Diaries, transcribing only the words printed here in bold type.

Lamartine says that writers neglect the composition of popular literature; that the greatest number of readers is to be found among the masses; and that writers write only for the circle in which they themselves move, despite the fact that the masses, which comprise persons hungering for enlightenment, have no literature of their own, and never will have until writers shall begin to write also for the people. This does not refer to books written with the aim of finding many readers: such works are not compositions, but mere products of the literary cult. What is meant is educational and erudite works which do not come within the province of poetry.
(Where the boundary between prose and poetry lies I shall never be able to understand. The question is raised in manuals of style, yet the answer to it lies beyond me. Poetry is verse: prose is not verse. Or else poetry is everything with the exception of business documents and school books.) To be good, literary compositions must always be, as Gogol said of his Farewell Tale, “sung from my soul,” sung from the soul of the author. (Pp. 44-45)

Only now have I come to understand that it is deceptive to feel sure of one’s actions in the future, and that men may rely upon themselves only in so far as they have had previous experience, and that that reliance annuls their very strength, and that one should regard no occasion as too insignificant to apply the whole of one’s strength to it. (P. 124)

Vanity is an unintelligible passion—one of those evils, such as involuntary diseases, hunger, locusts, and war, with which Providence is wont to punish humanity. The sources of it lie beyond discovery; but the causes which develop it are inactivity, luxury, and absence of cares and privations. (P. 129)

I should frame my testament approximately thus (unless in the meanwhile I should write another one,) it would run precisely as follows:
I desire to be buried wheresoever I may die, and in the cheapest possible burial ground (if my death should occur in a town), and in the cheapest possible coffin, such as is used for paupers. And I desire no flowers or wreaths to be laid upon me, and no speeches to be recited. And, if possible, let there be neither priest nor requiem. (P. 236)

March 8, 2010

Lord Cromer on the Greek Anthology, 1913

In her notebook 1250/1 in which she jotted down interesting passages from her reading, Moore writes “Spectator, 12 May” and transcribes the following lines: “On entre, on crie,/ et c’est la vie;/ on crie, on sort,/ et c’est la mort.” The lines appear as the epigraph to “As You Know”,” a four-line poem about the persistence of the soul after death, written in the summer of 1914 (she first sent it out to a little magazine on 14 August 1914, according to her list of submissions). The poem itself appears in the advance uncorrected proofs of The Poems of Marianne Moore (2003) but was dropped from the first edition.

The Spectator (London) for 10 May 1914 carried a review essay by Evelyn Baring, Earl of Cromerr of Ancient Gems in Modern Settings;Being Versions of the Greek Anthology in English Rhyme, by Various Writers, ed. by G.B. Grundy, Oxford, B.H. Blackwell; London, New York : H. Frowde, 1913. Cromer collected this essay, “The Greek Anthology” in his Political and Literary Essays, 1908-1913. London: Macmillan, 1913. In addition to the lines noted, Moore would have found several other passages of interest.

Cromer addresses the translators’ challenges, writing: “Then again, the translator must struggle with the difficulties arising from the fact that the Greeks regarded condensation in speech as a fine art. Demetrius, or whoever was the author of De Elocutione, said: ‘The first grace of style is that which results from compression.’” See “To a Snail,” “If ‘compression is the first grace of style,’ / you have it.” To be fair, W. Rhys Roberts in his edition of De Elocutione (Cambridge, 1902) translates this sentence “The very first grace of style . . .” and it is possible that Moore read his bi-lingual edition.

A few paragraphs later, Cromer ponders why most of the Anthology’s poems, insubstantial as they are compared to the greatest literature of Greece, continue to fascinate readers. “The reasons are not far to seek. In the first place, no productions of the Greek genius conform more wholly to the Aristotelian canon that poetry should be an imitation of the universal. Few of the poems in the Anthology depict any ephemeral phase or fashion of opinion, like the Euphuism of the sixteenth century. All appeal to emotions which endure for all time, and which it has been aptly said, are the true raw material of poetry.” The phrase “the raw material of poetry” had some currency in the period 1910-1917 which might be called the years of gestation for Moore’s “Poetry”; it appears most often in the context of Greek poetry. An unsigned piece on “Free Verse” in The Outlook for August, 1915, blasts that form with: “It would be foolish to deny that some poetry of surpassing worth has been written in the less formal manner. It would be impossible to deny that much free verse contains a rhythm and a cadence that are both effective in the excitation of emotion and as a vehicle for the conveyance of thought. It would be equally foolish to deny that much of what currently passes for free verse is at best little more than the raw material of poetry, that its formlessness results from laziness rather than imagination, and that its span of life will be as brief as its rhythm is breathless.”

Cromer continues his remarks on poetic brevity: “Then again, the pungent brevity of such of the poetry of the Anthology as is epigrammatic is highly attractive. Much has at times been said as to what constitutes an epigram, but the case for brevity has probably never been better stated than by a witty Frenchwoman of the eighteenth century. Madame de Boufflers wrote: ‘Il faut dire en deux mots / Ce qu’on veut dire; / Les longs propos / Sont sots.’ In this respect, indeed. French can perhaps compete more successfully than any other modern language with Greek. Democritus (410 B.C.) wrote ‘O kosmos skene, ‘o Bios Parados, / elthes, eides, apelthes.’ [The world is a stage, life is a performance; you come, you see, you go away.] The French version of the same idea is in no way inferior to the Greek: ‘On entre, on crie,/ Et c’est la vie! / On crie, on sort / Et c’est la mort!’ Here Cromer joins the last pithy verse, the one Moore noted in 1913 and used in “As You Know” to the first verse of Boufflers’ “Sentir Avec Ardeur,” Moore waited exactly forty years to use the latter in “Tom Fool at Jamaica,” the title appearing in the text of her work and the entire French poem in its notes.

We cannot know for certain whether Moore’s use of these elements in her poems came directly from Cromer’s piece in The Spectator—with the exception of “As You Know.” But in any case, there is real pleasure in finding them all in one essay.

Two online sources for Cromer’s Poltical and Literary Essays, 1913:

This address goes to a full reproduction of the Cromer’s book at “”. The essay “The Greek Anthology” is at pages 226-36.,+on+crie%22+spectator&ei=sgKVS-SmL5KCywSri4ncAg&cd=2#v=onepage&q=&f=false

This address is for Google Books’ limited preview of the book; the last page of the essay is suppressed.

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